Dec. 8's splashy launching of the musical Ragtime carried a sad and macabre footnote.
Just as Brian Stokes Mitchell was establishing his Tony-consideration qualifications for his dynamic portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the show's futile firebrand, the man who created the role in Milos Forman's non-musical 1981 film, and got an Oscar nomination for it, died at New York's St. Luke Hospital.
Howard E. Rollins Jr. was 46. His success in the Ragtime film led to only one other major film role -- the murder investigator in A Soldier's Story, the movie version of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning play, A Soldier's Play..
Rollins was best known for another detective role -- Virgil Tibbs -- in the TV series based on 1967's Oscar-winning Best Picture of the Year, In the Heat of the Night. Carroll O'Connor co-starred in the role that had won Rod Steiger an Oscar -- a redneck police chief. Within two months of the start of the series (which ran 1988-94 on two networks), Rollins was arrested for driving under the influence, in excess of 100 mph, with two bags of cocaine in his jacket. His habit weighed heavily on the series' production schedule, causing him to be written out of it in 1993 (to serve a five-week jail sentence) and eventually replaced by Carl Weathers for the show's last season.
Rollins appeared on Broadway with Michael Jeter in G.R. Point and with Morgan Freeman in The Mighty Gents. Other stage credits include The Medal of Honor Rag We Interrupt This Program and Fathers and Sons. He also starred in a London production of I'm Not Rappaport and a Canadian staging of Othello.